Remasters and HD ports are currently in full force this generation. I don’t have a problem with them if they are done well, as I feel it’s a nice way to revisit titles with an extra bit of polish. A recent example is Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, a remaster that came with plenty of extra content never before seen in English, while having better performance and touched up graphics. It’s usually the case for a lot of remasters, but remakes are a different beast. Crash Bandicoot got a remake that was loved by fans, but when I think of remakes, the one that I feel is the perfect example of what a remake should be is Capcom’s Resident Evil on Gamecube. It added new content and story on top of the old without feeling disjointed, keeping what made the original game special, while throwing in amazing visuals for the time. I’d like to add Yakuza Kiwami to that list, as Sega and the Yakuza team have done a fantastic job with bringing the first Yakuza title to PS4, making the original PS2 release obsolete, which can now remain locked away in your video game collection cupboard.
With Yakuza o bringing a bunch of newcomers to the table when it released earlier in the year, Yakuza Kiwamihas dropped at a good time to give the new fans an insight into the beginning game that started off this rich series. The bulk of the story in Yakuza Kiwami takes place in 2005, 17 years after the events of Yakuza o. After a brief prologue set in 1995 that introduces the now infamous Kazuma Kiryu – he is in the running to gain his own family at this point in the story due to his hard work – is mistakenly involved in the death of the Tojo Clan patriarch and is sent to prison for ten years. On his return to Kamurocho, Kazuma notices a lot has changed, but is pulled back into the world of the Yakuza when another death happens in the Tojo Clan on the day Kazuma returned….Coincidence? I think you can guess that answer.
Originally being the game that introduced us to the world and characters for the first time, the story is more personal to Kazuma than any other entry, while also being full of what is probably the staple of a good piece of Yakuza medium – interesting, somewhat believable and well portrayed characters, twists and turns in its emotional story with a spice of crime drama, which, of course, involves some good backstabbing betrayals between supposedly loyal clan members. Some extra scenes and dialogue have been included, which will make fans happy, as it explores a little more behind some of the decisions taken by key characters (Nishikiyama is an example). It’s all worthwhile additions, since the story is usually one of the strong points of the franchise, and the original is one of those games that makes you want to get to the end to see how it all plays out.
The story offers an exciting look into this fantasy subset city of Tokyo and the life of its organised crime, but some of its pacing and design is showing its age in 2017, especially after playing the later titles and seeing how the developers have improved presenting a story. It’s also one of the shortest in the series, clocking in around 15-20 hours if you don’t bother with any of the game’s large amount of side content, which will double the game’s length.
The first thing to hit home is the improvement in graphics. This is a title that has leaped over a generation from the PS2 to the PS4, and the use of the Yakuza 0 engine and some borrowed assets to update the game means that it features some fantastic character models and high resolution assets for the city of Kamurocho, all while running at 60 frames per second at 1080p (sadly no PS4 Pro support) with a few irregular drops. Seeing the characters up close in cutscenes is where you can appreciate the detail modelling, but sadly, it seems the animations, especially regard facial movement, remain closely to how they were in the PS2 originally, spoiling the work gone into the higher detailed models. It shows more with the new added cutscenes what the rest of the game could have animated like. Still, it doesn’t take anything away from the overall experience, as this is still a much better looking and presented game than what was seen 12 years ago. There is also the bonus of the full Japanese audio track, since the English dub that was only available in the Western PS2 release is none existent in Kiwami, keeping it in line with the rest of the Yakuza releases in the West.
Speaking about the Yakuza 0 engine, the combat from that prequel has been used in this remake. All three styles of Brawler (balanced), Beast (strong and slow) and Rush (fast and weak) come across to bring some added variety to the standard combat of the first game, along with the Dragon style that was unlocked later on in Yakuza 0, which is now active by default. Battles are mostly random encounters, with thugs and punks appearing in the city, ready to run at you when you get near them. Fights play out in a small part of the environment, with onlookers acting as ‘walls’ to stop players going out of bounds. Fighting is pure brawling – imagine something like Streets of Rage turned into a 3D combat arena fighter and you have a nice idea how fights will play out. Environment objects – bikes, chairs, signs, swords, etc. – can be used to do extra damage, and add some amusement to the combat when used as a final KO, activating a slow motion effect as the enemy goes flying. Kazuma will once again have to learn new moves and abilities through gaining experience points by finishing quests and winning fights, as the game uses the mechanic that jail has made Kazuma rusty, so must remember all he learnt in his life as part of the Yakuza to regain his combat mastery, which is another way of saying “go punch people in the face to get better.”
Dragon style comes with an exclusive mechanic that makes it slightly different than the other three styles, because this way of the dragon cannot be upgraded through traditional experience skill points, but is embedded in a new feature called Majima Anywhere, which features one of the series fan favourite characters, Majima Goro. The eye-patched gangster keeps growing in popularity, and after being a big part of Yakuza 0, the development team decided that he should have a bigger role in this remake, and so Majima Anywhere is a feature that allows them to do this. What this means is that Majima appears all over Kamurocho ready to meet with Kazuma to brawl with him, with a win from the player rewarded with a new skill in the Dragon style. Majima has a few combat styles, and so initially, fighting him is a lot of fun, more so with the stories that Majima makes up to get Kazuma to brawl, such as serving him overpriced whiskey in a bar, with a refusal to pay leading to a fight outside. These encounters do begin to wear thin the further it gets along in the game because the fights themselves are very outside from the rest of the game, feeling disjointed from the story, as one point you might fight Majima in a bizarre uniform, but then a few minutes later, the story kicks back in and you fight him again in the serious confines of the plot with no history of the Majima Anywhere events ever happening.
It’s great that the remake of Yakuza made it over here, but it releases at a strange time in terms of the history of the Yakuza series. Yakuza Kiwami does exceptionally well in accomplishing its main task of bringing an updated remade version of the original PlayStation 2 game – it is also selling at a slightly reduce priced than a brand new PlayStation 4 release – upholding its great story, well written characters and the sheer joy of entertainment when taking part in the hours of side content. The issue is that with so many Yakuza games now released, and with 2017 also including what was probably one of the best Yakuza games in Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami is in a weird position where its use of the Yakuza 0‘s engine and passed along mechanics and mini games give a sense of déjà vu that feels like a step down from Yakuza 0, with the main attraction here being the story and its updated visuals as reasons to experience the game that birthed the fantastic Kazuma Kiryu, especially if you are new to the world of Yakuza.